As attacks escalated Friday on journalists covering the unrest in eastern Ukraine, a European security official denounced "brutal violence, kidnappings and intimidation" by pro-Russia gunmen occupying Ukrainian government buildings across a 200-mile swath of eastern Ukraine.
Dunja Mijatovic, media freedom representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, called on the militants who have detained and terrorized Ukrainian and foreign journalists over the last week to "show respect" for the reporters covering the tense developments in the former Soviet republic.
The gunmen in Slovyansk have also held seven European members of an OSCE military monitoring mission hostage for more than a week, as well as five Ukrainian military escorts. Other Ukrainian journalists and human rights activists seized by the separatists in recent days remain unaccounted for.
"We need to stop the attacks against, intimidation, detention and imprisonment of members of the media," Mijatovic said. "International organizations must work together to put pressure on governments to ensure journalists' safety."
Earlier Friday, reporters from BuzzFeed, Sky News and CBS were stopped at a roadblock outside the separatist-held town of Slovyansk and blindfolded, interrogated and in some instances beaten, Mijatovic said. The U.S. and British news teams were held for about three hours before being released, the OSCE representative and the news organizations reported.
Slovyansk has become ground zero in the Ukrainian government's uphill battle to contain the spread of armed occupation of its regional government offices and police stations in areas of eastern and southern Ukraine with large Russian-speaking populations. The interim authorities in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, accuse Russian President Vladimir Putin of instigating the uprisings that have brought lawlessness and sporadic violence to the region.
"We were blindfolded with cloth and masking tape really quite tightly around our heads so we couldn't see anything at all," CBS News correspondent Clarissa Ward told "CBS This Morning" by telephone shortly after she and three other CBS crew members were released.
Ward said their captors were "quite rough and sharp with us," forcing them into a van that took them to another location where they were shouted at and forbidden to speak while the militants searched their belongings.
Mijatovic also reported in her appeal for safe media access that gunmen forced their way into a regional television station in Luhansk on Thursday and cut off the Ukrainian programming and replaced it with the Russia 24 television feed.
A Radio Liberty reporter was "intimidated and bullied" by a crowd in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, while reporting on a protest there, the OSCE representative said.
Slovyansk was the scene of a deadly clash between the separatist militants and Ukrainian government forces early Friday, when the Kiev-dispatched troops attempted to retake the town sealed off by militants' roadblocks. Nine separatist checkpoints were stormed and captured, acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov reported on Facebook. Two Ukrainian air force MI-24 helicopters were shot down during the operation by the pro-Russia gunmen armed with grenade launchers and portable anti-aircraft systems, Avakov said.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times